Time and the Conways, National Theatre, London
An unfortunate case of déjà vu
Monday 11 May 2009
The time travels of a modern master like Robert Lepage are light years away from the creaky old family sagas of J B Priestley, whose application of the once fashionable, now forgotten theories of J W Dunne and P D Ouspensky doggedly made theatrical frissons out of synchronicity and déjà vu.
I guess the director Rupert Goold fancied doing a Lepage on old J B. But Lepage is culturally esoteric, while "honest Jack" Priestley was a son of his Yorkshire soil, and it's that crucial element that's gone missing in Goold's adventurous but flawed revival of Time and the Conways, a 1937 charade – which is, literally, how the play begins – of disintegrating optimism between the wars.
Take the luminescent Francesca Annis as the matriarch. I'm not necessarily saying that I'd prefer to see Patricia Routledge in the role, but Annis's Mrs Conway, presiding over a series of setbacks in Act Two that lead to proposals to sell off the family properties, veers towards Chekhovian chutzpah, not Yorkshire pragmatism.
And you'd also have to say that the way this woman has kept her figure after giving birth six times is nothing short of miraculous. She's lost her husband, though, along with her accent, while her children are all building hopes in a brave new world as the curtain rises – or rather splits open like a camera shutter – on a scene of merriment.
The year is 1919, and it's Kay's twenty-first birthday. The same party continues where it left off in the third act, with a sort of protective film of over-informed nostalgia, after a second act fast-forwarded to 1938. Here, it's Kay's fortieth birthday, the large room is stripped bare, the bright reds have mutated into dull browns, the youngest child has died, and one of the girls is married no longer.
Another daughter, tartly played by Fenella Woolgar, has dwindled from public idealism into private education, and Kay herself has swapped novel-writing plans for interviewing celebrities in the local rag.
There are two ways of tackling the play's challenge. The obvious method is to suggest the poignancy of growing old in overlapping youth, which is what happened at the Old Vic 20 years ago when Joan Plowright played alongside two of her own daughters in her son's production on a stage associated with her husband, Laurence Olivier.
The other, adopted by Goold and, especially, Hattie Morahan as the strangely possessed Kay, is to play up the spookiness of the time theories as evidence of cosmic arrangements beyond our understanding, with muzzy video projections and hyperventilated acting.
In 1992, Stephen Daldry directed Priestley's An Inspector Calls on this same stage; it struck a timeless chord, rooted in a recognisable society, that reverberates still, a trick that proves beyond Goold and his team but which is less their fault than the play's.
To 27 July (020 7452 3000; www.national theatre.org.uk)
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